William Faulkner on Beginner’s Mind and the Mystique of the Muse
“Now I realize for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions…”
By Maria Popova
When William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — which he received with a spectacular acceptance speech — he already had a number of widely celebrated classics under his belt, including The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, as well as some little-known Jazz Age art and a curious children’s book. But, being an idealist and a champion of the creative spirit, he believed his best work was ahead of him and had already spent three years writing what he considered to be his greatest masterwork. Titled A Fable — a conceptual counterpart and precursor to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — it was eventually published in 1954, earning Faulkner his second Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
During the final stretch, Faulkner wrote to his lover, the novelist Joan Williams, reflecting on the perspective the decade-long labor of writing the novel had given him on the natural life-cycle and the inherent mystique of the creative life.
In a letter from April of 1953, found in the wholly invigorating Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library) — which also gave us the writer’s beautiful epitaph for himself — Faulkner echoes Goethe’s awe at the advantages of “beginner’s mind” and writes:
Working at the big book… I know now — believe now — that this may be the last major, ambitious work… I know now that I am getting toward the end, the bottom of the barrel. The stuff is still good, but I know now there is not very much more of it, a little trash comes up constantly now, which must be sifted out. And now, at last, I have some perspective on all I have done. I mean, the work apart from me, the work which I did, apart from what I am… And now I realize for the first time what an amazing gift I had: uneducated in every formal sense, without even very literate, let alone literary, companions, yet to have made the things I made. I dont know where it came from. I dont know why God or gods or whoever it was, selected me to be the vessel. Believe me, this is not humility, false modesty: it is simply amazement. I wonder if you have ever had that thought about the work and the country man whom you know as Bill Faulkner — what little connection there seems to be between them…
For a contemporary counterpart, see Elizabeth Gilbert on the mysterious relationship between the artist and the muse, then revisit Faulkner on writing, the human dilemma, and the artist’s role in society.
Published September 25, 2015